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, 126 (1), 109-14

Rational Snacking: Young Children's Decision-Making on the Marshmallow Task Is Moderated by Beliefs About Environmental Reliability


Rational Snacking: Young Children's Decision-Making on the Marshmallow Task Is Moderated by Beliefs About Environmental Reliability

Celeste Kidd et al. Cognition.


Children are notoriously bad at delaying gratification to achieve later, greater rewards (e.g., Piaget, 1970)-and some are worse at waiting than others. Individual differences in the ability-to-wait have been attributed to self-control, in part because of evidence that long-delayers are more successful in later life (e.g., Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990). Here we provide evidence that, in addition to self-control, children's wait-times are modulated by an implicit, rational decision-making process that considers environmental reliability. We tested children (M=4;6, N=28) using a classic paradigm-the marshmallow task (Mischel, 1974)-in an environment demonstrated to be either unreliable or reliable. Children in the reliable condition waited significantly longer than those in the unreliable condition (p<0.0005), suggesting that children's wait-times reflected reasoned beliefs about whether waiting would ultimately pay off. Thus, wait-times on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks (e.g., the marshmallow task) may not only reflect differences in self-control abilities, but also beliefs about the stability of the world.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Mean wait-times of children in each condition. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. Children in the unreliable condition waited without eating the marshmallow for a mean duration of 3 min and 2 s (M = 181.57 s). In contrast, those in the reliable condition waited 12 min and 2 s (M = 722.43 s). A Wilcoxon signed-rank test found this difference to be highly significant (W = 22.5, p < 0.0005). Here, 15 min was used as the wait-time for children who did not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned, though these children may have actually waited longer if the experimental design had permitted.
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Proportion of children who waited the full 15 min without eating the marshmallow by condition. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. In the unreliable condition, only 1 out of the 14 children (7.1%) waited the full 15 min; in the reliable condition, however, 9 out of the 14 children (64.3%) waited. We tested the difference using a two-sample test for equality of proportions with continuity correction at α2-tail = 0.05. The test found it to be highly significant (X2 = 7.6222, df = 1, p < 0.006).

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